With Phelps' quest for gold almost over, NBC worries ratings will drop

NEW YORK -- Can't Michael Phelps stay? Please?

No amount of begging by NBC will make it happen. The Olympics swim meet ends soon after Phelps' bid for his eighth gold medal on NBC Saturday night, with another week of competition remaining.

Interest in the Olympics is nearly certain to wane, but NBC can already claim its own medal. The games averaged 30 million prime-time viewers over its first eight nights -- "American Idol" numbers -- and NBC Universal said it has earned more than $10 million since the games began from new advertisers eager to climb on board.

It's also the first real sign of that broadcast television can recover from its debilitating strike of last winter and produce an event that draws the nation together.

"Broadcast is not dead, despite reports to the contrary," said Brian Hughes, researcher for the ad buying firm Magna.

All because of one super swimmer.

Maybe not entirely, but NBC convinced Olympics officials to start races early so they could be aired live in prime-time in the eastern time zone, and built the network's battle plan around Phelps' bid for history. It worked out even better than expected, with two of Phelps' races having heart-stopping finishes.

Could Friday night have worked any better? NBC moved directly from showing a come-from-behind win by the leading U.S. beach volleyball team to Phelps' race. The live telecast heightened the suspense for East Coast viewers.

NBC was also able to show gymnastics, another marquee event, live. The one drawback to the one-two finish by Americans Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson was its 1 a.m. ending.

After a desultory summer of trumped-up dancing, singing and weight-loss competitions -- maybe broadcast television's worst ever -- the Olympics are like a feast to starving families, heightening its impact.

"This event shows the pipes work and that if you put on great programming that people want to watch, then they'll show up," Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal president & CEO, told CNBC Friday.

NBC says the Beijing games are on pace to be the most-watched Olympics ever. Between NBC and company-owned networks USA, MSNBC, CNBC, Oxygen and Telemundo, the airwaves are flooded with competition. NBCOlympics.com is streaming thousands more hours, too.

All of the activity has fueled interest, helping NBC in prime-time, said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. Ironically, NBC's failure to keep video of the opening ceremony off the Web before it could be televised on 12-hour tape delay seemed to build excitement, resulting in a startling audience of 34 million people.

That theory won't be tested for competition, however. NBC doesn't stream events on the Web before they are shown on television. The second week is dominated by track & field, already likely to send many casual women viewers away. NBC's prime-time will also have few events live during the coming week, removing that element of suspense.

There's still a good chance NBC will be able to beat the 24.6 million average prime-time viewership of the Athens Games, and the 21.5 million in Sydney in 2000. That would be a real achievement when viewers have more alternatives every year.

During the first week, NBC has done little to upset its hosts.

Two of the biggest off-field stories -- the stabbing of two Americans by a suicidal man and revelation that a cute girl singing during the opening ceremony was a lip-syncher -- were covered during the daytime. But the stabbings were only briefly mentioned during prime-time and the lip-synching wasn't mentioned at all. Attendance problems at venues also hasn't drawn notice.

Except for a Tom Brokaw retrospective on opening night and Bob Costas' thorough interview with President Bush, the focus has been almost entirely on sport. Mary Carillo has kept her travelogues light. Mark Mullen's hard look at China's effort to groom Olympic stars was shown on the "Nightly News."

Costas has been respectful.

"Everyone of us who has visited here comes away with a deep admiration for the Chinese people -- so much to admire here and so much to learn," he said one night.

NBC's meticulous pre-Olympic planning can actually have its weak points. There's little room for flexibility in prime-time, and NBC's view that only a small number of sports deserve that special platform sometimes makes the broadcasts repetitive.

Phelps' trips to the medal stand were also repetitive, but NBC will take them any day. Barring a major catastrophe during the final week, his success in Beijing will send NBC Universal executives home smiling.